6 Ways to Leave the Great Outdoors Better than You Found it

August 31, 2021

When out camping and hiking, one of the central tenets for responsible outdoor recreation is to leave it better than you found it. It’s an adage that highlights the importance of environmental responsibility and minimizing impact on nature. As more and more people are venturing outdoors nowadays, it’s an ethos that’s more important than ever. Fortunately, there are simple techniques and tips for being prepared and leaving the great outdoors as green as you found it.

Woman applying insect repellent against mosquito and tick on her leg during hike in nature. Skin protection against insect bite

1. Choose the Right Bug Sprays

Bug spray and sunscreen are essentials when out camping or hiking, but it’s important to be selective about exactly which spray and sunscreen you’re choosing, because these seemingly trivial purchases can make a huge impact. Here’s where it pays to nitpick the labels before purchasing. With sunscreen, for example, you’ll want a product that’s not water soluble, as this can pollute water. Bug sprays really run the gamut in terms of strength and protection, but certain kinds can also be laden with damaging chemicals, so read labels and/or do some research to ensure you’re not dousing yourself in poison.

Couple handing reuseable water bottle.

2. Skip Single-Use Items

By simply reducing the amount of products or equipment you take with you, you’re reducing the potential waste. When out in nature, single-use items (such as utensils, plates, bowls, cups) add up real quick, and create a whole heap of garbage that you’re gonna need to dispose of and potentially carry around with you. By opting for reusable items as much as possible, you’ll cut down on excess waste and keep it minimized to the essentials.

Picnic table littered with food residues and napkins

3. Take Your Food Waste With You

While many people might be under the assumption that certain things like banana peels and apple cores are biodegradable — and thus perfectly fine to toss on the side of the trail — these things can make a surprisingly large difference when it comes to decomposition and environmental impact, especially if said fruits contain pesticides (which a lot of them do). Not only should you obviously be carrying out food waste like wrappers and bags, but be prepared to tote out everything else too.

A father and his little son are starting a campfire in a fire ring at a campground overlooking a lake in the woods, as their senior dog lays nearby.

4. Don’t Burn Your Trash

Similar to the fruit waste situation, burning garbage in a campfire might seem totally harmless and normal, but when you’re camping and accumulating waste, it’s critical to always carry your garbage out with you (or toss it in the appropriate bin at your campground). Why? A lot of what you’re intending to burn is probably filled with harmful pollutants that could damage the air and soil around you.

Sorting recycling items.

5. Separate Your Trash Accordingly

Another trash rule: clearly delineate your garbage into separate bags for recyclable material and regular trash. An easy trick for doing this is by preparing ahead of time with designated containers for recycling and garbage, and labeling accordingly. Stick with it and make a routine of discarding things appropriately, and then when your adventure is done, disposing of them appropriately as well. It might also help to separate your two piles so that they’re not right next to each other, creating possible confusion.

Young female hiker with a backpack collecting plastic waste in green forest

6. Make Things Even Cleaner

It’s one thing to clean up after yourself, but it’s even better if you go the extra step to clean up after others. After all, the adage is “leave it better than you found it,” with emphasis on better. You can do so by keeping an eye out for waste you may find on a trail or in a campsite. When out hiking, even if you won’t have any waste of your own, bring along a convenient disposable bag that you can fill with any trash you might spot along the way. Future hikers — and the environment — will thank you.

Born and raised in New Hampshire, Matt Kirouac grew up with a love for camping and the outdoors. Though he’s lived in Chicago since 2006, he’s always on the lookout for new adventures. He writes about travel and food for outlets like TripExpert, Money Inc, Upventur, DiningOut, Food Fanatics magazine, Plate Magazine and Zagat, and he currently serves as Chicago editor for What Should We Do?! He’s the author of The Hunt Guides: Chicago (2016) and Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago (2017).

Leaving our outdoor spaces better than we found them is a central tenant of outdoor responsibility. Use these tips to be a good steward of the great outdoors so you can enjoy natural spaces for the next trips and generations to come.

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